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How to Choose a Hatha Yoga Style for your Mind-Body Practice

Many of those who now teach Yoga or other mind-body practices took it up when they were trying to heal themselves in some way, physically or mentally.

Traditional exercise or healing disenchanted them. Then they found Yoga. But they weren’t happy with one cookie-cutter version. They had to carve out their own pattern with slight changes to sequence, breath, or other mechanics, based on a combination of teachings from different mentors, gurus, swamis, masters, or sages.

The physical form of Yoga — Hatha Yoga — has numerous styles, and you may find that some classes are blends of those styles, sequences, and postures. Don’t let that alarm you! No one can tell you that one path is correct and the others incorrect. Remember, it’s all a process. Just do what feels right to you, and you’re on the road to discovery.

The following list gives you a few of the names for Hatha styles you may see, and the primary emphasis of that style. This list just helps you get familiar with some names you may stumble across as you move along your personal path:

  • Ashtanga: Ever heard of Power Yoga? It’s not some fitness guru’s concoction, but the teachings of a real yogi, born many decades ago, by the name of K. Patthabi Jois, who originally studied under Krishnamacharya. This is athletic stuff that can challenge your muscles and turn your sticky mat into a slippery (with sweat) mat. Not really for beginners unless you’re already extremely fit.

  • Bikram: Rumor has it that a Bikram class leaves you grinning ear to ear. Whether that’s true or not, it is another highly powerful style that isn’t for beginners.

    Bikram, which has become quite popular lately, is very physical, very strenuous, and is taught in sweat-box studios with temperatures reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit or so. Not for the weak of heart . . . literally, or for anyone with back problems or most chronic diseases.

  • Integral: Another disciple of Swami Sivananda, Swami Satchidananda, developed this form, then became a part of new age history with an appearance at Woodstock in 1969. He’s probably responsible for all those hippies who started practicing various forms of Yoga, chanting “ohmmmm” . . . and getting on their parents’ nerves.

  • Iyengar: You can thank B.K.S. Iyengar for popularizing the use of blocks, belts, bolsters, and other Yoga equipment that can help you achieve a perfect asana. These aids make it possible to practice Yoga postures even if you’re not as flexible as you’d like to be or have other physical limitations. Posture perfect is one of the key terms here.

  • Kripalu: A three-step program well-suited for Western needs and progressions, partly because it breaks down breathing and alignment in very clear ways. A good place to get your feet wet.

  • Kundalini: Originated by Sikh master Yogi Bhajan, Kundalini style uses postures, breathwork, meditation, and chanting to awaken the “kundalini” or “serpent power” within. Your energy with this style is directed through the chakras or energy centers along the spine. The style places an emphasis on the integration of several breathing techniques.

  • Sivananda: If you want a pure Yoga book, consider the beautifully illustrated classic, The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, by Swami Vishnudevananda (Crown Publishers, 1960), a disciple of Swami Sivananda. Don’t be put off by the 1960 original publication date! This is a very comfortable practice, with sequences you can feel at home with.

    This book is out-of-print, so to obtain a copy, check your local library or ask your favorite bookseller if they can do a search for you. You may be able to find it through an out-of-print specialty shop, or you can search the major bookstores online for out-of-print books. Or check out a Yoga studio near you that has it and is willing to loan it to you.

  • Viniyoga: This is a slower, flowing, and more sequenced approach that you see in many clubs today, but was originated by Shri Krishnamacharya. Asanas coordinate with the breath, and practitioners are encouraged to breathe into a stretch, moving just a little farther on an exhale. It’s great for beginners because of the slow approach.

You can choose from literally thousands of postures, or asanas, not including all the variations on a theme concocted by one swami or another.

But don’t just open the book and go through the entire menu of postures your first time out. In fact, people probably never just go through the entire list, one after the other. You may even try some postures that you’ll just never do again because they don’t feel good to you or they hurt your knees, back, or neck. Yoga is not about pain, but all about gain.

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